Local Turtle Week
Local Turtle Week is back from Friday, August 27th to September 2nd #LocalTurtleWeek
Our Annual turtle release event can’t be held in person during the pandemic but from August 27th to September 2nd we are sharing a week of online activities including photos, videos of hatchlings, and education about habitat needed for turtles. Local Turtle Week is held in partnership with the Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority.
Day 1: The Importance of Turtles
Did you know that Ontario has 8 native turtle species? Unfortunately all are now listed as species-at-risk. Although turtles have been around since the age of the dinosaurs, they now face an uncertain future. A world without turtles is very sad to think about, but have you considered the impacts their loss may have on the environment? Turtles play an important role in our ecosystem. As omnivores, they eat invertebrates, fish, and plants, and help to keep our aquatic environments in balance. Eggs and young turtles are often a food source for other species, so turtles are one part of a massive food web. Many turtles are also scavengers that remove decaying fish from wetlands, which helps maintain water quality!
Day 2: Threats facing turtles
What could harm turtles with thick skin and hard shells? We are often asked what the threats turtles face are, and how they are at risk. In this post we will discuss some of the main threats our local turtles face.
First, and one of the most important, is habitat loss and fragmentation. Without wetlands and natural areas our local turtles have no home, and no way of surviving in the altered landscape that now dominates southern Ontario. Originally, southern Ontario was a mosaic of wetlands, forests, and natural meadows. Now only pockets of these natural habitats remain amongst the vast stretches of agricultural land, residential areas, and towns. See our future Turtle Week post specifically on wetlands!
To connect our new man-made landscape, humans also made dense networks of roads. Roads and cars are one of the biggest threats to turtles. Unfortunately, turtles are also attracted to these roads as gravel shoulders present perfect conditions for nesting. There are many ways to help turtles against the threat of roads, such as: If you see a turtle crossing the road, consider helping it cross in the direction it's heading when it's safe to do so. Roadside nests are also perfect candidates for incubation, please give Huron Stewardship Council a call if you find a turtle nesting on a road. If you find a turtle injured by a car, consider calling the Ontario Turtle Conservation Center to arrange a turtle taxi to save the turtle.
The last threat we will talk about is high meso-predator populations and nest predation. Our new man-made environment has helped supplement populations of predators such as raccoons and foxes which dig up and eat turtle eggs. Without nest protection with cages, many nests will be predated by raccoons and foxes. Although this is natural, the frequency that it occurs is not as humans have helped create very large populations of raccoons. If you want to help protect turtle nests from predators on your property you can make (or buy) nest cages to protect the nest. You can also help reduce the raccoon population around your property by reducing access to human food by using locking garbage containers and compost bins. Everyone can help turtles against the threats they face. Humans have caused these threats, it's only right that we help.
For kids! Learn more from 'Turtle Guardians' in this short video
Day 3: Turtles and Wetlands
Turtles need wetlands, but Southern Ontario has lost over 70% of its original wetland cover. Sadly, some parts of Ontario have lost over 90% of these original habitats. The decline of turtle populations and the loss of wetlands have gone hand in hand. Remaining wetlands are often fragmented and far apart, causing turtles to travel long distances and face additional threats. All turtles lay their eggs on land, but the hatchlings move toward the water immediately after leaving the nest. Some turtles rarely leave their wetland except to lay a nest. Within a wetland, some areas may be important for basking, while other areas are important for feeding or hibernation. Wetlands are teeming with life, which makes them incredible places to go for a nature walk. With so few wetlands left in Southern Ontario, habitats such as the Morrison Dam reservoir are important places for us to protect and value. Although we can’t take you on our usual hike around the reservoir during the turtle release, this trail is open for self-guided nature exploration. Some fun places to explore include Morrison Dam Conservation Area (Exeter), and Hullett Provincial Wildlife Area (East of Clinton).
Day 4: Making your property more turtle-friendly
If you already have great turtle habitat on your property, the best thing to do is preserve it for the future. When we release the turtle hatchlings at our reservoir, we know that they have a great habitat in which to thrive. If you are looking to improve turtle habitat on your property, keep in mind that turtles love:
Have a look around for these turtle habitat features the next time you visit Morrison Dam Conservation Area. It’s even possible to build brand new wetlands, and grants may be available to support this type of work. You can also visit the Huronview Demo Farm just south of Clinton to see a four-acre wetland built on former agricultural land through an ABCA, Huron County, and the Huron Soil and Crop Improvement Association partnership. Wetland restoration projects such as this one are an excellent way to benefit many species, reduce flood risk, and improve water quality.
Day 5: Egg Incubation
Turtles in Ontario typically nest from late May to early July. The eggs excavated from Morrison Dam Conservation Area, east of Exeter, were collected in June with the help of staff and volunteers. Thank you to everyone who reported a nest! We could not do what we do without you. While some eggs were collected for incubation and later release, others were protected where laid. Predators such as raccoons are abundant so nest success in some locations is nearly zero per cent. Incubation of eggs and the release of the hatchlings can help get turtles over those first few hurdles. After the eggs are laid, female turtles head back to the water as their job is done. Over the course of the next few months the eggs slowly develop underground or in the incubator. We candle the eggs sometimes to check on the developing embryo, just as you would a chicken egg! What is egg candling? Candling is a way to observe development and growth, inside an egg, of an embryo. Candling uses a bright light source, such as a flashlight, to shine a bright light through the egg and reveal the developing embryo.
Day 6: Hatching
Painted Turtles are cool! But did you know they can be super-cool? Although the staff at Huron Stewardship Council (HSC) will release the incubated Midland Painted Turtle eggs shortly after they hatch, in the wild these hatchlings can choose to stay in their nest over the winter and emerge in the spring! You might be wondering how they can handle the freezing cold temperatures during the winter. This is how Painted Turtles can be supercool, by supercooling their bodies! Supercooling is a biological process where the body fluids can drop below typical freezing temperatures by using natural antifreeze proteins. This can allow hatchling turtles to survive temperatures as low as -12° Celsius! If supercooling isn’t ‘cool’ enough for you, hatchling Painted Turtles will often freeze like ice in the nest! As supercooling requires very specific nest conditions, the hatchlings can freeze instead. This is done by allowing ice to form in the fluids around the cells within the body. Although the freezing is usually brief, it can persist for a week or more, but is only survivable to -4° C. Even though scientists still do not know everything about how these processes work, what we do know is that Painted turtle hatchlings are one of the best vertebrates at doing it!
Day 7: Release
At last, our Local Turtle Week has come to the moment for which we’ve all been waiting ... to see the hatchlings released back to the wetlands near where their eggs were originally laid. These hatchlings have overcome one of the biggest hurdles of being a turtle but they still have a long way to go. Depending on the species these turtles could need to live another 20 years before they can lay eggs of their own! Although many of these hatchlings will not survive, they have a much higher chance now that we’ve helped protect them as eggs and ensured they made it to the water. As small young turtles they will rarely venture far from the water as they are prey to nearly everything. Although they’re on their own now, we can still do our part to help them by protecting their wetland homes. Hopefully with our help they will live long enough to lay eggs of their own.
Meet The Turtle Team
Marcus Maddalena, Biologist / Stewardship Coordinator
Meet Marcus Maddalena, Biologist and Stewardship Coordinator with the County of Huron. Marcus introduces us to Local Turtle Week, which returns in 2021 and runs from August 27 to September 2.
Cristen Watt, Fieldwork Coordinator / SAR Technician
Meet Cristen Watt, of Huron Stewardship Council. Cristen tells of their work and the need to preserve and enhance habitat such as wetlands that turtles need to survive.
Cory Trowbridge, SAR Technician
Meet Cory Trowbridge, Species at Risk Technician with Huron Stewardship Council. Cory tells us about himself, challenges in his work, and why it helps to learn the eight different species of Ontario freshwater turtles.